So this is the "new normal."
Hawaii is struggling to adapt to budgetary constraints that seem likely to persist for the forseeable future. Things will get better, but as the Legislature wraps up this year’s painful session, one thing is clear: Those planning for the state’s future no longer can assume we will some day return to business as usual.
Ever since the debacle of the 2008 financial crash, state employers, like their counterparts in the private sector, have lived by the maxim, "Do more with less." Agencies providing critical safety-net services certainly found they had more to do. At the point when private fortunes go south — people losing jobs and their accumulated savings — the demand for an assist from the government always skyrockets.
The "less" part of the equation soon became apparent, with the tax revenues supporting government services on a steep decline. Even with the fiscal cushion supplied by federal stimulus dollars, state and county governments have let vacant positions go dark and exacted furlough days as a means of reducing labor costs and closing budget deficits.
Star-Advertiser writer Dan Nakaso, in his recent chronicle of the fallout across all the public agencies, sketched a barren landscape. Furloughs and staffing cuts have meant increasing backlogs in delivering everything from marriage certificates to restaurant inspections. Hours are reduced at state libraries. Lines are long, for many things.
For its part, the public must accept longer waits for many of the services that the state previously delivered with a quick turnaround. It’s unfair to place unreasonable demands on a system that is sure to be under strain for some time.
There are immediate things government can do to adjust to its lean financial means. One obvious adjustment moved closer to reality this week with the ratification of the new Hawaii Government Employees Association contract. Members of all but the nurses’ unit of the union have accepted the deal, which offsets a 5 percent wage cut with nine additional vacation days. State administration negotiators face the difficult but crucial task: They must persuade the nurses that, although their salaries do lag behind those in the private sector, the taxpayers can’t afford to offer them much more just now.
Even for the units accepting the deal, the agreement won’t achieve all the savings the state really needed, with the deficit ballooning to $1.3 billion. But judging by the sizeable protest vote against the contract, further concessions in future contracts will be a tough sell.
This means that going forward, the state must continue to curb its spending in other ways, winnowing what functions it can afford to provide even reasonably well. There may be ways to reduce duplication of efforts through enabling better data-sharing between government agencies, a project soon to get under way with improvements to state information technology systems.
That will only go so far, however. As the economy recovers, the Abercrombie administration must resist the temptation simply to reinflate the bubble. There are so many priority projects, including covering the unfunded liabilities of its soon-to-retire workforce, that the state won’t be truly flush with funds for a long time — if ever.
The governor and his Cabinet must decide which jobs the state must staff fully to achieve its core objectives, and in which cases the correct instinct would be simply to let go. It’s a painful subject, but that conversation should begin as soon as the immediate budget-balancing crisis is behind us.